Dooley Noted: It’s Christmas Time in the City
Imagine with me you’re in a new city on business for a few days in the middle of December. Desiring to look around, you move toward the exit of your hotel, noticing a stack of boxes in the shape of a Christmas tree to your right and a beautiful display of poinsettias to your left. Once outside, you immediately recognize the festive sights and sounds all around you.
Strolling down main street, you see a Christmas tree prominently displayed in a store window. Next, you spot a furniture store with a collection of red and green candles. A pastry shaped like a yule log amuses you at a local bakery. When you finally sit down for a bite of lunch, Mariah Carey is quietly singing in the background of a small cafe. While eating, you make plans to attend a Winter Wonderland that evening for a time of seasonal festivities, shopping, and shows.
Nothing about these details sounds unusual. In fact, you can probably imagine everything I described happening right here in Jackson. But what if I told you these were descriptions of the Christmas scenery in Saudi Arabia? Would you be surprised? Just ten years ago public expressions like these would have been unthinkable. Christmas trees were once seized by Arab customs. Merchants selling holiday merchandise only did so in hidden, backroom deals. Technically, it is against the law to celebrate Christmas in much of the Muslim world because publicly promoting religions outside of Islam is prohibited.
But a lot is changing in the Middle East, primarily because they are figuring out that Christmas is big business. Surprisingly, you’ll find similar scenes in places Turkey, Indonesia, Iraq, and Iran. Dubai’s Emirates Palace Hotel even boasts of the world’s most expensive Christmas tree valued at just over $11 million.
To be clear, none of these nations are celebrating the birth of Christ. Most in this part of the world believe that Jesus was merely a prophet, and many find Christmas symbols offensive. Yet, it seems that an equally large percentage of the population has also concluded that Christmas need not be a religious holiday at all.
Before we cast a judgmental eye, could I suggest that our experience here in the United States isn’t all that different? According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 93% of Americans celebrate Christmas each year, but 26% say their observances are not too religious and another 32% admit their adherences are only somewhat religious. In other words, over half of us won’t spend too much time emphasizing Jesus this December. Our favorite Christmas songs reveal the real focus of our celebrations. According to Spotify, not one song about Jesus appears in their all-time greatest list of Christmas songs.
In reality, there is little practical difference between the Middle East, where most refuse to acknowledge the true meaning of Christmas, and the United States, where most of us simply choose not to care. And therein lies the danger. Satan doesn’t care why you don’t celebrate Jesus, as long as you don’t. A secular Christmas is no threat at all to the darkness and brokenness that describes so much of our world. The mindless repetition of Baby, It’s Cold Outside won’t inspire hope for those who are lost in their sins. The sheer stupidity of Santa Baby does little to rid our hearts of materialistic excess. And seasonal lyrics about snowmen, reindeer, or jolly old Saint Nick won’t point us to greater purpose or meaning in life.
Interestingly, at one of the lowest points in Israel’s history, God pointed to the glory of Christmas in order to console His people. Despite the Lord’s refusal to ignore the sins of His people and the chastening consequences He imposed upon them, in the midst of Jewish trauma God promised,
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.
The child born to a virgin named Mary was no ordinary child. He is our Wonderful Counselor; our Mighty God; our Everlasting Father; our Prince of Peace. And one day, just as He came to Bethlehem, He is coming again to bring peace by righting the wrongs on earth. He will separate the sheep from the goats (Matt. 21:31-46). He will rule as king over all the earth (Zech. 14:9). And His kingdom will be one of justice and righteousness (Psalm 89:14). This is why we celebrate the birth of a baby in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. Christmas without Jesus really isn’t Christmas at all.
So, my prayer for our city this season is that every house decorated with lights will remind each of us that Jesus really is the light of the world (John 8:12). May each gift we receive remind us of the eternal gift that God gave when He sent His Son (John 3:16). And as we assemble in our homes with loved ones and friends, let’s all remember how the angels and shepherds gathered around a tiny manger to behold God in human flesh (Luke 2:8-15). Merry Christmas!
Dr Adam B. Dooley is pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, TN, and author of Hope When Life Unravels. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBDooley.